By Julie Reynolds, Director of Curriculum
Recitation is one way we cultivate poetic knowledge at Clapham. How many of us still remember the verses memorized as a child in the beautiful words of the King James Version? What images have been formed in our hearts from lines like “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul,” or what rush of feeling comes with “O how I love to go up in a swing, up in the sky so blue?"
Recitation provides an avenue for digesting the words memorized, providing both inspiration to the student and a gift to the listener. Recitation is much more than mere memorization; while making its imprint on the mind, it is also instructing the heart. A classical method, recitation was the work of most school children before the 20th century. Laura Ingalls Wilder recounts in Little Town on the Prairie that the entire crowd at the Fourth of July celebration recited the Declaration of Independence.
Historically, the church liturgy assumed memorization of creeds that were recited weekly. For children, the work itself is astoundingly easy as they have such a great capacity for memorization. The gift it gives the listener is equally as profound, for recitation is the sharing of ideas and inspiration from one heart to another. Recitation of both poetry and Scripture is an everyday occurrence at Clapham. Here are some observations about each.
First, on poetry:
An article from the Wall Street Journal a few years ago states, “There is no surer way to possess a poem or a piece of oratory than to learn it by heart and to be able to recite it with a full consciousness of what the words mean and what their effect has been and might be.” At Clapham, our hope is that recitation can be the evidence not only of owning the words of the poem, but of owning the poem itself.
How do we do this, this owning of the poem itself? One way is to share biographical information about the poet. Where did he or she live? In what time period did he write? What was her life like? What events might have inspired the writing of the poem? These kinds of reflections allow children to better enjoy the poem and perhaps relate it to their own life experiences.
Some of our poems in the early classes like “Try, Try Again” and “Results and Roses” include great reminders, such as to always persevere and that results come only with effort. These classes also have many opportunities to apply these principles in class!
The frequent acquaintance with poetry in and of itself has value. Poetry is meant to be spoken and in this way, students experience its vocabulary, cadence, and rhythm. Hearing and reading the poems daily takes much of the labor out of memorization as the children pick up the words gradually and naturally. They are then able to apply their knowledge of the poet and the material to interpret the poem with expression in recitation, “owning” the poem, as well as surprising someone else with the gift of that poem by reciting it for them. Charlotte Mason called special attention to recitation as a gift. This is indeed counter cultural. Today so much emphasis is on getting “things”; instead recitation trains children to give the gift of beautiful words!
Second, on Scripture:
As Christians we treasure God’s words and His poetry above all and are corrected, nourished, and encouraged by them. How wonderful to call them to mind when we don’t have the written pages in front of us, either to remind ourselves or another of what He says.
The Psalmist reminds us that it is by hiding God’s word in our heart that we are able to resist sin. Haven’t many of us recalled Hebrews 10:31, or parts of Ephesians 6 or Galatians 5:22, or Philippians 4:8 and 9, at some crucial time?
Knowing Scripture also gives us an opportunity to know and commune with God in an intimate way. Perhaps we think differently about an extraordinary sunrise (Psalm 19), or we meditate on the stars and the way that the knowledge of God shines to the ends of the earth, or we can even sing God’s Word back to Him in times of praise (Psalm 100), or remind ourselves of His faithfulness (Lamentations 3). Some of the students at Clapham can now recount in detail from Luke 2 the birth of the Savior, the awesome message of the angels, the worship of the shepherds, and the wonder of a mother.
Finally, I cannot help but recall a recitation of Romans 8 from Fine Arts Day. As students in Class 5 crescendoed with the questions of what could possibly separate us from the love of Christ, a single voice sounded the truth: “NO! In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
What a gift to be able to recall, meditate on, and share these words of Life with another!
 Lehman, David, “How to Own a Poem,” The Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2006, W17.